No Chris Paul.
No Trevor Ariza.
A struggling team that had lost 10 of its last 15 games and was playing the second night of back-to-back road games at the tail end of a five-game road trip without its All-World point guard.
Meanwhile, the Bulls were finally home after their own five-game road trip in which they went 4-1 and were coming off an emotional and hard-fought win in Miami the night before.
If there was an online NBA Dictionary, and the term “Trap Game” was in it, last night’s blech-fest against the Hornets would be an embedded video included in that entry.
Well, okay, not really. After all, the Bulls evaded the trap Indiana Jones-style. Only instead of finding the Lost Ark or the Holy Grail, they earned their 44th win of the year. It was also their ninth straight win at home, which is the team’s longest streak since a 10-game run during the 1997-98 season.
You know. Jordan’s last year.
The Bulls didn’t play well on offense — shooting 38.3 percent from the field and missing 16 of their 20 three-point attempts — but they played hard. As usual, Derrick Rose led the way with a game-high 24 points. He also had almost as many assists (9) as the Hornets (10). Carlos Boozer (19 points, 8-for-14, 9 rebounds) had his best game in a while and Joakim Noah ripped down a game-high 13 rebounds.
And, as has been the case all season long, when they can’t make shots, they adapt by forcing their opponent to miss even more shots. To wit: The Hornets shot 36.3 percent as a team and didn’t score a single point over the final three minutes and 18 seconds.
Did the Bulls let down a little? Of course they did.
Said Joakim Noah: “When you play in a game like we did [Sunday] against Miami, it’s normal, it’s human nature, to have a letdown. But I think we realized that. We really stayed focused, and even in the last 3:15 of the game, that’s what Coach was emphasizing. Just staying focused on the moment, understanding what we needed to do to win this game.”
Added Luol Deng: “It’s good to look back at the game and see that we didn’t shoot that well and we’re still able to win the game. That says a lot about our defense. It was a tough road trip; not making any excuses, but playing a team like Orlando in a TV game, and then playing early in Miami, it was a tough game. But we’ve got guys in this locker room that know how to win. Even when we’re struggling we just find ways to win.”
If this Bulls team has shown any weaknesses this season, it’s not bringing everything to the table against lesser teams. And if they end up missing out on the first or second seed in the Eastern Conference, they may end up regretting their collection of losses against teams they should have beaten (Bobcats, Clippers, Nets, Sixers, Raptors, Warriors).
On the flip side, it’s also important to win gut check games. This was one of them. And the Bulls were able to turn on their defense at the end and pull it out.
And, in case you missed it, the Bulls now rank second (to the Lakers) in both Marc Stein’s Power Rankings and John Hollinger’s Power Rankings. What’s more, as TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott tweeted, Hollinger’s Playoff Odds currently give the Bulls the best chance of winning this year’s NBA title.
The Bulls have been fighting for respect all season. They didn’t get it by having an MVP candidate or surviving injuries to Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. They’ve gotten it — they’ve finally gotten it — by winning. It’s all about the winning.
But it’s not enough. Not for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
Said Deng: “Until we win it all, even when we win it all, I don’t know if Coach is going to say where we’re at [is good]. That’s the best thing about Coach, really. I think that [attitude] has helped us a lot. It’s helped Derrick a lot, even playing great every night, and still coming in and playing hard, and all of us in the locker room. Coach is really always pushing us and that’s something that’s going to be with us for a long time.”
Hopefully through June. This year. And next year. And the year after that.